1800 vs 2020 – Messy Elections in our wonderful Land of Opportunity


Many of us are stressed out this November 2020, as the election process proceeded at an irregular pace. We are used to seeing a sitting loser graciously concede and invite the winner to tea at the white house. My advice to my excitable wife, Daisy, was, “Relax. All will end well enough no matter the man in the white house. Our laws and institutions have enormous strength to resist the base intentions a few scoundrels on top.”

Thank the heavens for our wonderful form of government and the genius of the great minds behind its creation.

The election of 1800 was also a mess. The Unites States of America was only 24 years of age. Here’s a little history lesson gleaned from Wikipedia and my reading of Ron Chernow’s great biography, Alexander Hamilton.

The sitting President in 1800 was John Adams. He lost the election. There was a runoff between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr.

The Federalists’ man, Aaron Burr, favored a strong central government and close relations with Great Britain. The Democratic-Republicans’ man, Thomas Jefferson, favored decentralization to the state governments. 

According to historian John Ferling, the jockeying for electoral votes, regional divisions, and propaganda smear campaigns made the election recognizably modern.

The constitution, at the time, did not allow for electors to choose a vice president but stipulated that the second-highest vote-getter would hold that office. 

Instead of choosing Jefferson president and Burr vice president, the electors botched their work and instead awarded each man 73 electoral votes. The responsibility of breaking the tie was handed to the  House of Representatives.

Each delegation from the 16 states was given one vote to award to either Jefferson or Burr. The winner needed to get nine of the 16 votes to be elected president, and the balloting started on Feb. 6, 1801. It took 36 rounds of balloting for Jefferson to win the presidency.

Still dominated by Federalists, the sitting Congress loathed to vote for Jefferson – a partisan nemesis. Jefferson and Burr essentially ran against each other in the House. Votes were tallied thirty-five times, yet neither man captured the necessary majority of nine states. 

Eventually, Federalist James A. Bayard of Delaware, under intense pressure and fearing for the future of the Union, made known his intention to break the impasse. As Delaware’s lone representative, Bayard controlled the state’s entire vote. On the thirty-sixth ballot, Bayard and three other Federalists cast blank ballots, breaking the deadlock, and giving Jefferson the support of enough states to win the presidency.

History teaches us that even flawed men can hold high positions.

Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant man and contributed much to our country, and to our ideas about freedom. He owned over 600 slaves. Jefferson wrote, …We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…

Aaron Burr was a hot-headed lawyer-politician despised by Alexander Hamilton, the great architect of American government. As Vice President, Burr’s most notable act was killing Hamilton in a duel. As a result of that crime he died broke and in obscurity.


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